Monday, September 9, 2013

Elvis Costello and The Roots - Wise Up Ghost - Collaborative Cool

Just last week I was looking at the new signature Gibson SG commemorating The Root's guitarist Cap'n Kirk Douglas, and as I watched him playing some slinky, suggestive chords on said instrument, I mentioned to a friend that I knew little about the band, but had planned on checking them out for some time.

No sooner was this said than Wise Up Ghost, the new album by Elvis Costello and The Roots landed upon my table, and I am an instant convert - Costello is brilliant as always, and The Roots sound like they've digested most of the soul music that's been made for the last sixty years, and given it their quirky and much more than competent update. If you had played this for me in 1978 and told me it was what Costello would sound like in 35 years, I'd have been most pleased.

The concept emerged after repeated jam sessions spurred by Costello's appearing on the Jimmy Fallon show - at some point they realized that they had an album in the works, and indeed, they do. Wise Up Ghost is a welcome addition to a year that has been surprisingly potent in new releases.

The Roots are more urbane and less spastic than were The Attractions, but there are soulful similarities, as I can hear echoes of Motown, Philly, and Stax in the grooves here. Especially noteworthy is Questlove's drum work, which gets him a seat next to names like Purdy, Al Jackson Jr., and Earl Young, as a hall of fame worthy stickman. In fact, though, the entire band is solid as a rock, and smooth as silk. It's easy to see how Costello envisioned his busy word play and subtle melodicism working so well in this setting.

Walk Us Uptown sets the tone as a pastiche of electronics announce the intro - Questlove's tight, high hat driven beat instantly gets things moving as period perfect keyboard swirls take me back to the days of Was (Not Was), Cap'n Kirk's comping is mated to the drums like newly weds, Costello brings in extra melody for the chorus, and this is the E's best collaboration since Bacharach. Sophisto-pop at its best.

Retro meets modern as some early '60s strings ring in Sugar Won't Work, and then there's some Motown approved single low string guitar statements that bring in the king, and again, he's killer on the choruses - this is Southern fried soul mixed with Carnaby Street meeting in 2013, and they walk the dinosaur. The Roots remind me of this season's Daft Punk as they explore the past, then drag it sweetly into the future. Kamal Gray's keyboards are fabulous throughout, and on this cut he provides some amazing organ work, swirling, punching, and coaxing Costello. Do they quote The Age of Aquarius at the end? Maybe.

Skronky clavinet signals the entry of Refuse To Be Saved - this evokes thoughts of Dylan gone hop, and it's again, just fucking brilliant. You can almost hear the fun for everyone in the grooves - Mark Kelley's expanded range bass walks wonderfully, at one moment percolating, then supplying great melody. This is the first track that sounds like Elvis is joining The Roots as opposed to vice versa, but it cuts well in both directions.

British history is refreshed in the intro to Wake Me Up - ska infused pub rock gets pumped up for the times, but this is close enough to classic UK soul that early Costello fans will realize they might have his best record in decades in their machine. Douglas turns his guitar up a bit, and you almost think he's going to solo, but he's just mixing it up and enhancing the groove.

Tripwire sees Costello getting soft and sappy, and he does it better than anyone. Delightfully empathetic backing is on tap, as the band seems to understand Elvis as well as any band he's worked with, and maybe even better. The background vocals on this one are especially wonderful, as The Roots get smooth, and pretty.

A simple toggling of chords that remind me of Petty's Breakdown on Stick Out Your Tongue, and things remain slow, and syrupy. A perfect pace for EC to weave his poetry.

Come The Meantimes picks up the pace with pulsating bass, a crisp beat, and some spacey keyboards - it seems that the album proceeds at a pace that further incorporates the ingredients as it goes - the stew gets better and better as it simmers on the stove. I can't wait to see them do this material onstage, that should be very special, indeed.

"She's pulling out the pin," and (She Might Be A) Grenade. Less ambitious, but no less engaging - mostly strings, bass, and a fat back beat accompany some electric piano chords and some Douglas plucked arpeggios, and Elvis riffs over the top. Another tale of love going sideways.

Cinco Minutos Con Vos (with La Marisoul) brings me back to Was (Not Was), and for me there are few higher compliments when it comes to danceable sophisticated pop. However, the duet only sort of works for me - mostly in melody and movement, but it doesn't quite resonate with me.

Viceroy's Row is another reminiscent of the dulcet soul of Was (Not Was) - tasteful R&B with a jazzy vocal attached on top with smarter than usual wordplay. It's late night, and things are perhaps winding down for the evening. An amazing performance by low-ender Kelley here keeps the listener coming back for another round.

The title tune might be the best on tap yet. A broken beat staggers along with some fabulous string arranging - Costello sounds like he's singing under a light post, as he wonders when the ghost will wise up. Time moves fluidly, a task much tougher to play than to listen, and Questlove gets his Most Valuable Player award on this one. Douglas makes some great guitar noise that could be mixed higher for my taste, but this is an incredibly successful experiment in music making - surely more than Metallica and Lou Reed could accomplish. This is a more natural pairing, and both sides walk away victorious and pleased, I'm sure. Wise Up Ghost makes the case.

If I Could Believe is a nice way to wrap things up with Elvis singing with a solo piano, his occasionally spotty intonation forgiven by his incredible vibrato. Questlove's drumming is stately when it arrives and they waltz wonderfully into the sunset. A lovely bit of orchestration sends the ships sailing, and one of the year's best listening experiences is over.

Wise Up Ghost is out September 17th in the US

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